Sunday, September 21, 2008

New This Week: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

My mother once said to me that no one is just one thing. A Mafia hit man can also be a loving father. Your best friend in the world can also sleep with your spouse. The president of the United States can be, well, anything but presidential. That’s sort of the story with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Knopf), which is being billed as a crime story; the thing is, it’s not just a crime story. It’s also a multi-generational family saga and a really different, really cool kind of love story.

Its author, Stieg Larsson, said to be one of Sweden’s top investigative reporters, wrote a trilogy that starts with this book. They became significant bestsellers throughout Europe, and Alfred A. Knopf will publish all three here at home. The thing is, you won’t see any interviews with Larsson, no signings in bookshops, no reading select passages -- because he’s dead. He died after delivering the manuscripts, and there is, you might say, some question as to whether his death was by natural causes or the work of any number of the anti-democratic, extremist, or Nazi organizations he investigated and wrote about. Clearly, Larsson’s own story could make a pretty great crime novel.

And so. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. What a terrific read this is. Involving, even absorbing, characters. A family bound together by secrets and business as much by blood. Betrayals. Resentments. Screwed-up relationships. The intricacies of business. The dark corners that are part and parcel of investigative journalism. Sex. Pretty great stuff. Populating this world are Mikael Blomkvist, magazine editor, who gets pulled into the tale in its first few pages, and Lisbeth Salander, a 20-something snooper who’s very tattooed of body, very inquisitive of mind, and very prickly of personality.

These two are not just the engine of the book--their relationship, in all its fascinating facets, is the glue that holds it together as well as the thing that keeps you turning its pages. Blomkvist needs Salander to help him uncover the mystery of a missing girl named Harriet -- an event many decades old. It’s steeped in family history and cloaked in secrets that few people want to see revealed. Blomkvist’s boss, Helmut Vanger, is one of those few -- and nothing, it seems, will stop him ... or convince him to stop Blomkvist.

Larsson writes with verve and a knowing sense of fun. He has a great time weaving his yarn, adding color on top of texture on top of flavor. He paints the various Swedish locations with style, even down to the aroma of the meatballs. The pace he sets isn’t quite breakneck, but so many things happen that it feels miraculous that someone was able to keep track of all the details. Most impressive is how smart a thriller this is, and how insightful a love story. Read it, and you’ll find yourself looking forward to the next two ... and mourning the author’s much-too-early demise.

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